It remains to be seen whether Hurricane Gustav will force Republicans to delay their national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, scheduled to begin Monday. But city officials say all final preparations have been made for what they hope will be a festive and economically-beneficial four-day gala. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from St. Paul, where many residents, including non-Republicans, say they welcome the chance to show off their city to the nation and the world.
Like most of the United States, Minnesota has seen its economy slow over the last year. At a St. Paul shopping mall, a jewelry salesman who identifies himself only as Hamid says he hopes to see a boost in business during the Republican National Convention, which will draw tens of thousands of visitors to the area. "Considering what the economy is, it is a wonderful thing to have so many people coming by. Whether they spend money or not remains to be seen. I think any exposure to get the Twin Cities' [Minneapolis and St. Paul] name out there is wonderful," he said.
As in many large urban areas in the United States, Democrats far outnumber Republicans in St. Paul and neighboring Minneapolis, regarded as the most liberal cities in a state that has not voted Republican in a presidential contest since 1972.
Cathy Grady, who promotes adult literacy in St. Paul, expresses disdain for Republicans but says she hopes the region benefits from the convention. "I'm a staunch Democrat, and so I kind of want to go down to that area [of the convention] and do some protesting, or at least give some people the stink-eye [nasty looks]," she said.
Grady is not alone in wanting to protest. More than a dozen groups, as well as hundreds of unaffiliated citizens, are expected to demonstrate over the coming days. Mikael Rudolph, co-founder of the pro-civil liberties group "Impeach for Peace", says he hopes violence can be avoided. "We would like the protest to be something that is family-friendly, that we can bring our children to. There are anarchist groups that are planning to do otherwise," he said.
That concern is shared by local authorities. Tom Walsh is a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. "The relationship between St. Paul, its government and citizens and the police department is an extraordinary one, and one that at the end of this convention we intend to be just as strong as it is today. At the same time, we know some of the people who are going to be here are not necessarily local citizens and do not have the intention of being law-abiding. So, our job is to sort through that," he said.
As in Denver, which last week hosted the Democratic National Convention, authorities here plan to confine protesters to specific, well-delineated locations so as to virtually assure no direct confrontations with convention-goers. Demonstrators have complained that they are, in effect, being muzzled, but a court challenge to the city-imposed restrictions has failed.
For Democrats and Republicans, where they hold their national conventions is, in part, a strategic decision. Each party hopes that the attention and excitement surrounding their convention will boost their chances of carrying the host state in the November election.
But there is little, if any, evidence to support such a hope, according to political scientist Kathryn Pearson at the University of Minnesota. Pearson says it is not inconceivable that Republican presidential candidate John McCain could win in Minnesota, but adds that, if he does, it will not be solely because of the convention in St. Paul. "Even though Minnesota has voted Democratic at the presidential level for so many years, [2004 Democratic presidential candidate] John Kerry only had a three-point margin [of victory] in the state over President Bush. And so the margins have narrowed. And because we have a Republican governor, a Republican senator, there is this notion, which I think is an accurate one, that Minnesota is a swing state," she said.
Pearson says, as in the rest of the country, economic concerns are dominant among Minnesotans. She says the candidate that best addresses those concerns will likely carry the state in November.
For now, the nation's eyes are split between St. Paul and the US Gulf Coast as hurricane Gustav approaches.